The Northern Ireland Assembly was established as part of the Belfast Agreement reached at the multi-party negotiations on Friday 10th April 1998, known as the “Good Friday Agreement”, which established the idea of “parity of esteem”. A referendum was held on 22nd May 1998 and produced a majority in favour of the Belfast agreement, the New Northern Ireland Assembly was constituted under the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998. The executive was then set up in 1999, which is when the Assembly became fully operational.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland suspended the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive with effect from midnight on 14th October 2002, amid allegations of Unionist foot dragging and IRA intelligence gathering. The order for suspension was made under the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (see Northern Ireland Act 2000, c.1, s.1) and whilst it remained in force, Northern Ireland was effectively governed by direct rule from Westminster.
Following negotiations aimed at lifting the suspension, fresh elections to the assembly were held on 26th November 2003. The elections saw a large swing in votes to the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, and a corresponding fall for the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic & Labour Party.
Protracted negotiations between the British and Irish governments and the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin culminated in the restoration of devolved government, as provided for by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 c. 53 on 8th May 2007.
The current Assembly was elected on 7th March 2007.
Legislation can be initiated by a minister, a committee or an individual.
Decision making is by simple majority, except in those cases where cross-community approval, the backing of both unionist and nationalist sides, is required.
All legislation must be scrutinised by the relevant departmental committee and must comply with the Human Rights Act 1998 c. 42 and any Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.
Arrangements to avoid disputes with Westminster will follow those for Scotland. Disputes over legislative competence will be decided by the courts.
The assembly currently has full legislative and executive power over finance and personnel, agriculture, education, health and social services, economic development and environment. As the Northern Ireland Bill 2009 has recently received royal assent, it is envisaged that policing and justice powers will be transferred to devolved level in the near future.
Certain policy issues remain the preserve of the UK Government (‘Westminster’). These include foreign policy and defence. They are known as ‘Excepted Matters’ and are listed in full in Sch. 2 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. If a Bill before the Assembly contains a provision touching on an Excepted Matter the Assembly can legislate on that provision, provided that the Secretary of State approves (s. 8(a) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.)
Reserved Matters are those, currently exercised at Westminster, which may be devolved to the Assembly. They include policing and justice (see above) and postal services. The full list is set out in Sch. 3 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. If a provision in a Bill deals with a Reserved Matter the Assembly may legislate on it, provided that the Secretary of State approves (s. 8(b) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.)
The Assembly operates with a Speaker and Deputy Speakers elected on a cross-community basis using either parallel consent (when a simple majority of both sides must agree) or a weighted majority of 60% of all members present and voting. The election of the Speaker of the Assembly, First Minister and Deputy First Minister, standing orders and budget allocations and other key issues must be taken on a cross-community basis using either parallel consent or the weighted majority method.
The executive powers of the Assembly are discharged by a First Minister and Deputy First Minister supported by 10 ministers chosen by the d’Hondt system.
The d’Hondt system (named after the Belgian lawyer from the 1870s who invented it) is the basic idea that a party’s total vote is divided by a certain figure which increases as it wins more seats. As the divisor becomes bigger, the party’s total in succeeding rounds gets smaller, allowing parties with lower initial totals to win seats.
A number of safeguards have been built into the operation of the institutions namely the principle of proportionality (allocating responsibility according to a party’s level of support), which is applied when allocating committee chairs and committee membership.
There are committees for each executive department. The members of these are made up again using the d’Hondt system (see above) to ensure that each party is represented according to the level of its support. Effectively, any measure passed by the Assembly must attract the support of a majority of nationalists and unionists before it can be passed.
Members of the executive go forward to the North-South ministerial council with members of the Irish Government. This council has responsibilities for six areas “where co-operation and implementation for mutual benefit will take place”.
The Parliamentary process that a Bill follows varies depending on the type of Bill but broadly follow the guidelines set out in relation to a Bill of the Scottish Parliament (see Northern Ireland Act 1998, s. 13).